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On the joys of long-haul travel

Karl du Fresne: On our recent trip to and from the US, my wife and I were relatively lucky. Despite reports of chaos at airports, all our flights left on time.
Karl du Fresne
Contributing Writer
August 8th, 2022

OPINION: International travel has always been a trade-off. You put up with cramped aircraft seats and long, tedious flights over featureless oceans because at the other end, you were rewarded with interesting experiences in new places. Even when those experiences weren’t always good ones, as when a flight was delayed or you got lost trying to find your way around an unfamiliar city, in time they became part of a collection of memories that were overwhelmingly pleasurable.

To put it another way, the bad was always more than offset by the good. But I wonder whether that’s still the case. The nature and quality of international travel has changed, and with it the balance between positive and negative. In the past, this balance invariably tilted toward the former. But as my wife and I exited the Wellington Airport terminal three days ago after returning from our first overseas trip since Covid-19 struck, I vowed to myself that I would need an extremely compelling reason before I could be tempted to travel abroad again.

What’s changed? Well, 9/11 for a start. The attack on the World Trade Centre triggered the introduction of increasingly intrusive and time-consuming security checks which mean you can spend as much time in airport terminals as you do in the air. Over time, those security measures have gradually become more oppressive and authoritarian. We grudgingly accept that they were instituted for our safety, but I often wonder whether the people who make and enforce aviation security rules are doing what officious types have always enjoyed – namely, exerting authority over fellow human beings simply because they can. Passengers are herded like livestock and made to feel as if all are viewed as potential terrorists. Some officials try to be courteous, but many make no attempt to ameliorate the inherent indignity of the process; on the contrary, their manner is brusque and hectoring. Object at your own risk; you’re at their mercy, and they know it.

This bossiness is clearly infectious, since it has spread to airline cabin crew. Almost from the moment you check in, but especially once you’re on the plane, you’re repeatedly assailed with announcements about what you can and cannot do. These are delivered without any redeeming note of graciousness or charm. I half expect to hear a shout of “Achtung!” followed by the clicking of heels.

The message is clear: they’re in charge, you’re their captive, and you’ll do as you’re told. Often the safety instructions are recited several times, as if directed at a classroom of slow learners.

I’m reminded of the great Roger Miller’s wickedly clever song Boeing Boeing 707:

Overcharge for excess baggage
Know your concourse, know your gate
Up this way sir, not that way sir
Airplane departs gate six-eight

Please sir may l see your ticket
Fasten seat belt, you can't smoke
Beverage, anything you'd care for?
Sorry but we're out of Coke

Destination de-plane slowly
Do this, do that, l comply
God bless Orville, god bless Wilbur
It's the only way to fly

Miller’s lyrics suggest that bossing passengers around has been part of airline culture for decades (the song was recorded in 1969), but it’s now more overt than ever. The effect is to make passengers feel less like paying customers than a burdensome inconvenience that must be rigorously marshalled and managed.

Of course there are great cabin crew who do their best to treat passengers well and respectfully. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion over the years that the enjoyment factor in flying isn’t determined so much by the airline as by the quality of the crew. A good flight attendant can make the difference between a pleasant flight and one where you can’t get off the plane fast enough. You can strike a lousy crew on a supposedly good airline and vice-versa. But a consistent factor across virtually all airlines is that the worthy efforts of individual cabin crew members can be negated by the dehumanising authoritarianism of the total flying experience. The drivers of airport shuttle buses are often more genuinely affable than the people who are supposed to make your flight a pleasure.

To all this must now be added a more recent disincentive to travel: namely, Covid-19. This has delivered a double-whammy, placing huge strain on airlines and airport infrastructure as international travel ramps up again, but in addition giving bureaucratic busybodies all the excuse they need to place new obstacles in people’s paths.

On our recent trip to and from the US, my wife and I were relatively lucky. Despite reports of chaos at airports, all our flights left on time. Problems arose only when we arrived at LAX, where we queued for three hours to get through Customs and Border Protection. Despite having allowed what we thought was ample time to catch a connecting flight, we made it after a dash with only minutes to spare.

LAX is notorious for congestion, but we’d passed through it many times before and never experienced anything quite like this. Covid – or more specifically, staff shortages caused by the virus – seemed the only logical explanation. You just had to shrug and accept it, as our thousands of fellow queuers seemed to do. No one showed signs of anger or impatience.

The same issue, presumably, was responsible for a delay of well over an hour getting through transit at Sydney Airport on the way home, where a single security official was screening the cabin baggage of hundreds – possibly thousands – of passengers waiting to catch connecting flights. This time there were signs of restiveness, with one impatient man loudly demanding to know why only one X-ray machine was operating when it was demonstrably inadequate.

We had plenty of time, so the delay didn’t bother us greatly. However, not for the first time, I wondered why the hell we had to undergo security screening all over again having done it already before leaving LAX – surely one of the world’s most security-conscious airports. At no stage had we left a secure area. What lethal contents could possibly have found their way into our bags in the meantime? Or was this a case of overkill by over-zealous security functionaries eager to show us who was boss?

But that wasn’t the biggest cause of frustration on our homeward journey; far from it. Checking in at LAX, we were told we couldn’t enter New Zealand without first completing something called a Traveller’s Declaration. It was the first we’d heard of it, although we thought we’d carefully ticked all the required boxes prior to leaving New Zealand. At the very least, this is an abject communications failure on the part of a clueless government. I’ve since discovered the declaration was trialled as early as March, although our travel agent never mentioned it to us and nothing was said about it in the several text messages we received from Qantas supposedly advising us of all the formalities we had to complete before travelling.

The check-in clerk at the Qantas counter told us we could either complete the form online or fill in an old-fashioned hard copy. I chose the hard copy option for two reasons: (1) she gave us the impression it had to be completed there and then, as part of the checking-in process, so it seemed there was an element of urgency; and (2) I know from past experience that getting wi-fi access at LAX can be a hit-and-miss affair and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. But having hurriedly completed the forms while at the check-in counter on the understanding that this was a pre-requisite to re-entering NZ, we were surprised when they were immediately handed back to us with the instruction that they be submitted on arrival at Wellington. So much for the sense of urgency, then. But more on that shortly ….

The same check-in clerk tried to tell us that we couldn’t check our bags all the way through to Wellington as we had done in the past, but would instead have to uplift them at Sydney and check them in again for the last stage of the journey. This erroneous advice was repeated by a flight attendant on the plane. But since it defied common sense, we went straight to the transit counter on arrival at Sydney and were duly assured that our bags would indeed be carried on to our ultimate destination. Had we followed the advice from Qantas, we’d still be floundering around at Kingsford Smith.

And so to Wellington – at which point we learned that because we hadn’t completed our Traveller's Declaration online and therefore didn’t have a QR code to scan, we couldn’t enter via the E-gate but instead had to queue with a long line of foreign passport holders waiting to be processed manually. The Qantas clerk at LAX had failed to mention this pertinent fact, with the result that it took us an hour to clear Immigration while we watched fellow passengers breeze through in a matter of seconds. This is not something you relish after travelling for 35 hours. The same fate befell another New Zealand passport holder standing in front of us, who knew nothing about the Traveller's Declaration until he landed.

All of this was exasperating enough, but here’s the final affront: there was no information in the Traveller's Declaration that wasn’t also included in the standard arrival form we filled out on the plane as we approached Wellington. They were virtual duplicates of each other. The declaration was, in other words, totally superfluous; just another pointless hoop to jump through, devised by bureaucrats with not enough to do on behalf of an incompetent government intent on creating solutions to problems that don’t exist. Or to put it another way, just another example of the style of managerialism technically known as compulsive control freakery. The immigration official at Wellington Airport barely gave our completed forms a glance before adding them to an untidy pile behind her which, for all I know, could have been binned at the end of the day without any further scrutiny.

Incidentally, I’m not alone in concluding the Traveller's Declaration serves no purpose other than to provoke resentment from New Zealanders trying to get into their own country. Stuff travel writer Brook Sabin recently wrote about the frustration of having to complete the form and pronounced it a bureaucratic nonsense. All it achieved in our case was to delay us just long enough to ensure that we missed our train to Masterton.

Oh, and did I mention that after all this infernal rigmarole, we had to submit our bags for yet another X-ray screening – the third – before leaving Wellington Airport? Another queue, another delay. What the hell is the purpose of that, other than to satisfy some public-sector jobsworth looking to justify his or her existence?

The upshot of all this is that I’ve decided international travel post-9/11, and now post-Covid, has become altogether too difficult, too unpleasant and too stressful – in short, an ordeal I would rather avoid, and verging on masochistic. I haven’t even mentioned the tedium and discomfort of long-haul flight, which is only marginally relieved by paying extra for premium economy seats (almost a necessity when you’re 190cm tall and the flight takes more than 14 hours). Getting Covid on this latest trip didn’t help either, although fortunately the symptoms were relatively mild.

I think back to a two-week trip around the South Island with my wife several months ago when we were able to decide where we went and when, all in comfort and without delay or obstruction, rather than being at the mercy of pettifogging rules, officious and/or incompetent airline and aviation security functionaries and the totally unpredictable vagaries of immigration procedures. At no time was our South Island holiday anything less than relaxing and enjoyable, in marked contrast to our more recent overseas excursion. The old promotional slogan for domestic tourism, “Don’t leave town till you’ve seen the country”, has suddenly acquired new and unexpected relevance. (Besides, by staying in New Zealand you can feel virtuous about climate change.)

Okay, so this is just one person’s jaundiced reaction to a particular set of circumstances. But it wouldn’t surprise me if other travellers, having endured similar experiences as international air travel struggles to emerge from its enforced period of hibernation, will also now reassess the benefits of international travel against the multiple downsides and decide the equation has irrevocably changed - for the worse.

Article originally published on Karl du Fresne's blog and republished to The Platform with permission.

Karl is a freelance journalist and blogger living in the Wairarapa region of New Zealand.